Looking back over my blog, I am a little surprised to see that I never discussed the events we are reminded of at this time every year; the organized and terrifyingly effective attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In fact, my very first post was this week, three years ago, but I made no mention of it, busy as I was laying the groundwork for this whole experiment.
But, then why should I have? I had no personal connection to those events; I didn’t know anyone in the buildings or the planes, I have never been to New York or DC, and I was at the time (unbelievable as it is to me now) only going on 15 years old, a freshman in high school. But the September 11th attack is such a powerful shaper of American and world history, I still remember what it was like on that breezy Tuesday. It is my generation’s Kennedy assassination; an event so traumatic and world-shattering that no one who lived through it will ever forget it.
Mornings have never agreed with me, and that one was no exception. I staggered out of bed to eat some cereal and get ready for school. In those days, my dad was a fairly serious investor in the stock market, so the CNBC financial news was usually on TV during breakfast, where they talked about boring business things a teenaged, self-proclaimed “Jedi Knight” had no interest in. Without my glasses on, the smoking tower on the screen was probably the stock footage they were using while they talked about some manufacturing company or something. But as the fog cleared from my brain, I realized what the newscasters were actually saying. There had been an accident. A plane… a big plane, by the looks of it, had crashed into the World Trade Center. At the time, I was something of an aviation history buff, and I remember vaguely recalling when an American bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in the ’40’s, and a small private plane had done the same thing in the ’70’s. It was tragic, and people were most certainly injured or killed, but these kinds of things had happened before.
But then I realized that it had somehow happened twice. I know everybody remembers seeing the second plane careen into the towers on “live” TV, but according to the official reports, that was at 9:03 AM, Eastern, which for us Californians meant 6:03 AM. No way was I up that early in those days, so I must have seen the endlessly repeating recorded footage. It was a confusing time; we didn’t know what was happening, or why. I had certainly never heard of “Al-Queda”, “Afghanistan” or even “Muslim terrorists” at that point. What I probably did experience live was the news that a third plane had struck the Pentagon. With that came the sudden realization that this wasn’t some weird freak accident, this was something deliberate, we (represented by our landmarks, and the people in them) were under attack.
That’s honestly a lot for a little 14-year-old who was just weeks into his first year of high school to take in. I remember heading for the bus stop, and some of the other kids in my neighborhood weren’t coming, because their parents were afraid to let them out the door. I suppose the fear is understandable, but even at the time I was thinking, sarcastically, “Yes, number three on the list of places to attack, right after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is Red Bluff Union High School.” We really had no idea what was happening. In the following days, I remember there was discussion of the possibility that Shasta Dam could be a target, but with hindsight, it doesn’t really fit the pattern. Yes, it would have caused chaos and wiped out pretty much everything in the valley, but these terrorists were making a statement, attacking national symbols of our economy, military, and government. It was only through luck, and the undeniable bravery of the passengers of Flight 93 that there wasn’t a successful third strike.
The ride on the school bus that morning was probably the quietest it has ever been. We were all huddled forward, straining to hear the bus radio, as the first tower collapsed. School pretty much didn’t happen that day. Some teachers tried to hold class as usual, but ultimately we all just silently watched the unfolding coverage on the news. I was on the school newspaper staff in those days, and our journalism class threw out whatever had been the plan to discuss how the media should properly cover tragedies like this, as we watched the second tower collapse. The rest of the day was a daze, as we shuffled from classroom to classroom, never far from a TV repeating what we knew and speculating on what we didn’t.
Ultimately, life did move on, though it’s never really been the same. I think some asshole pulled the fire alarm at school the next day as a prank, when we were all still confused and on edge. CNN became something of a permanent fixture at our house for the next few weeks, as the media rehashed the events again and again, the crazy conspiracy theories rose and fell, and the hard facts started to come to light.
I’ve never been fond of referring to today as “Patriot Day”. Nothing that happened that day felt particularly patriotic. We certainly came together as a country afterwards; as much as I disagreed with President Bush and his policies, I still get proud chills whenever I see that footage of him with a megaphone and the New York firefighters. But we were all too confused and shocked to muster anything like that on the day. Also, “patriot” is too much of a positive-sounding word (except that it reminds me of the wholly unamerican “Patriot Act”) for what should be such a somber anniversary. It should be “Remembrance Day” or something suitably respectful. “Patriot Day” sounds like we should be launching fireworks and hosting barbecues, not reflecting on an event that set the tone for America in the 21st century.